Kedoshim Tihyu: Holiness lies in the interconnected world, in our relationships and our responsibilities

Parashat Kedoshim takes its name from the phrase it begins with: “Kedoshim tihyu, ki Kadosh Ani Adonai Eloheichem” – You will be Kadosh, as I the Eternal your God Am Kadosh.  (Leviticus 19:2)

The root K.D.Sh appears 152 times in the Book of Leviticus, and while usually translated as “separate/distinct” or “holy”, it has a richer and more complex life within Jewish thought than to be boundaried in such a way. It is difficult to fully explicate this word, in part because Kedushah is an attribute of the essence of God, and something we human beings are to pursue in our behaviour and being, the result of such pursuit is attachment to the Divine, understood in mystical tradition as the ultimate goal of all our spiritual strivings.

The 16th century kabbalist Rabbi Eliyahu deVidas explains in his mystical and meditative work (Reishit Chochma) that fleeing evil and doing good creates within us the ability to receive holiness from God. Holiness is a Divine response to our actions, and inhabits and shapes our soul, creating the possibility for communion with God.

Holiness exists in two different frameworks in bible: one is the sanctity of the priesthood and temple rituals which is the focus of much of this book of Leviticus; the second is the sanctity of peoplehood, of the whole community, as is underscored with the first verse of this sidra – “Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You (voi) shall be holy, for I, YHVH your God, am holy (Lev. 19:2).”. It is this second framework that speaks to us. Holiness is an aspiration for a community much more than a state for priest and temple. The focus moves a little away from the ritual rooted in the sacrificial system and more towards the ethical rooted in community living.

Avoiding evil and doing good seems to the main thrust of much of what is contained in the apex of the holiness school of guidance, found in Leviticus chapter 19.(Full holiness Code found Leviticus 17-26) According to Sefer haChinuch, there are 13 positive and 38 negative mitzvot in sidra kedoshim, guiding us towards doing good things, and away from improper behaviour.

We are used to categorising these mitzvot (commandments) in Kedoshim as either Ritual ones or Ethical ones, but there is another way to see these imperatives that does not divide them into different and separate types, but functioning instead together, as part of a whole and complex system.

The commandments that guide us towards holiness can be understood as being ecological in structure –together they are a description of the web of relationships that unite the people, the land, the environment including both flora and fauna, and God.  Together they both set the balance that allows each component to flourish, each constituent to be in harmonious relationship.

There are curious parallels that signal the interconnectedness if one looks – for example the law of pe’ah forbids us to cut the edges of the land (19:9) and the edges of the human head and beard (19:27). People and land are treated in the same way, albeit for different motivations.

The section of bible known to us as “holiness code” (Leviticus 17-26) can be understood as a coherent and unified corpus, which aims to bring together –  through varied and diverse subject matter, terminology and historical perspective – the connection of people and land. Specifically here people and land which each have a distinct relationship with God. The people are to aspire towards ideal behaviour; the land is to embody the sacred.  Each generation is to learn and understand the principles that underlie this text, to draw out and fulfil those principles in their own time and their own context. The texts play with time. This is the generation of the desert being told how to behave in the land they have settled. We are simultaneously at Sinai shortly after the exodus from Egypt, in the desert as a travelling and unrooted people, and in the Land of Israel as the people who are responsible for the welfare of both land and society.

The effect of these time distortions within the text is to reinforce the timelessness of the message and of those to whom the message is addressed – to remind us that each generation of the people Israel is to understand that we too are part of the web of relationship. Just as the Pesach Haggadah reminds us that each of us is to consider ourselves part of the generation that was freed from Egyptian slavery, so here we are reminded that the relationship between people, land and God is one we are firmly held within.

This year the message of the ecology, the web of the relationships and the connections between plants, animals, people, and the environment, has never been so powerful to me, and the balances and imbalances between these relationships cry out for our attention.

We are living in a time of climate change happening with unprecedented speed. Everything is being affected and generally not for the good of the world. Be it the insect populations diminishing or disappearing due to insecticides, or else the changes in weather which have disrupted their breeding; or the crops blighted by drought or to-heavy rains; be it the animals whose habitats are changing around them, leaving them ill equipped to survive, or the people who face tsunami or cyclones, or drought or blistering heat – we are once again forced to pay attention to the interdependability of our world, and to note how our behaviour is unbalancing not only our own context but the future world of our children.

When one reads this section of Leviticus not to tease out the ritual or ethical behaviours we feel ourselves commanded to follow, but to become more fully conscious of what it means to hear the imperative to holiness that we must pursue in order to come closer to God, it is impossible to ignore how the impetus to Kedushah is situated within the web of relationships between people, animals and land. The book of Genesis (2:15) tells us we have a responsibility to steward the land, to keep it in good order and fully functioning, we have to work it responsibly and mindfully. The book of Deuteronomy reminds us that should we not care properly for the land and for the people we will be expelled from living in the land, reminds us too that God is watching how people treat the land that is so special to God (Deut 11:12) And all the books of bible repeatedly remind us that we are not inheritors of this world by right, but that we are privileged to live here and have a role we must play, relationships we must nurture, transmission we must be part of. How we live our lives matters not just to us or our close family or generation, how we live our lives is part of the ecology of the world and how it will thrive – or not

Imitatio Dei, the imitation of the attributes of God, holds a central place in Jewish thinking, right from the creation of people b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God. We cannot absorb God nor become God, we cannot understand or encompass God, but we still have the obligation to come closer to Kedushah. The Talmud phrases it best, I think, like this:  “Rabbi Hama the son of Rabbi Hanina said: (Deuteronomy 13:5) “After God you shall walk.” And is it possible for a person to walk after the Presence of God? And doesn’t it already say (Deuteronomy 4:24) “Because God is a consuming flame”? Rather, [it means] to walk after the characteristics of God. Just as God clothed the naked [in the case of Adam and Chava]… so, too, should you clothe the naked. Just as the Holy One Blessed be God visited the sick [in the case of Avraham after his brit milah]…so, too, should you visit the sick. Just as the Holy One Blessed be God comforted the mourners [in the case of Yitzhak after Avraham’s passing]…so, too, should you comfort the mourners. Just as the Holy One Blessed be God buried the dead [in the case of Moshe]…so, too, should you bury the dead” (Sotah 14a:3-4)

It is a lovely description of how to imitate God to make the world a better place. But as our liturgy reminds us three times a day in the Aleinu prayer, it is our duty “letaken olam b’malchut Shaddai” To repair and maintain the world with the sovereignty of God. This is bigger than the cases suggested by Rav Hama – for the sovereignty of God is more than the relationships between people, important as they are. Instead I think the phrase is referring to the Kedushah we find in the Holiness Section of Leviticus – we must maintain and repair the relationships not simply bein Adam v’Chavero (between people) but bein Adam v’Olam – between people and the living beings – animal and vegetable – on this earth.

How we treat the earth – the rainforests with its trees often logged mercilessly and the environment of the animals who live there decimated and unsustainable; the rivers we clog with chemicals or detritus, the seas filled with plastic and becoming toxic to so many who swim in them, be they small turtles or huge orcas; the air in cities that are filled with pollutants, the fields we drench with fertilizers or insecticides, the animals and birds we so carelessly damage, the environment we so thoughtlessly injure, the casual littering and the mindless consumption of limited resources – all of this is in direct contradiction to what we are told about Kedushah, the holiness we should be striving to attain.

In London this week a 16 year old Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg, came to speak to Parliament and also to the many protestors of Climate Change who brought our cities to a standstill as they sought to persuade the government, by non-violent action, to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions to zero. The group “Extinction Rebellion” which has a Jewish section also held a Seder outside the Parliament buildings, linking the traditional ten plagues to the many threats to the earth if greenhouse gas emissions are not massively reduced, and global warming brought below two degrees.  They linked too to the damage to seas and air and land we are increasingly seeing happen. (The group is also protesting in Milan, Rome and Torino and in other countries too).

Reactions were mixed to the protests – in part because of the inconvenience caused to daily living, in part to vested interests, in part to political games-playing. But what became clearer to me was not just the science the protesters were drawing our attention to, but the religious values we have been ignoring for so long.

For when we categorise mitzvot into ethical or ritual, meaningful or opaque, spiritual or mundane, we mask over something else – the inter-relatedness of our world, which the mitzvot are designed to help  us to understand if only we would pay attention, the web of relationships between us and our environment, between animals and plants and humans and land and God.

When God tells the people that we must strive for Kedushah, an essential attribute of the divine, we often put this into the domain of the heavens, and forget that we live on the earth. We forget that the web of relationships is planet wide, that it involves trees and plants and soil and animals and insects….   Holiness demands from us the awareness of these relationships, and a response that values them.  “Le’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai” – to maintain and repair the world with divine ruling” – that is out task, and it is not in the heavens or far from us, but in our everyday interactions with the created world.

(sermon given 2019)

 

 

Parashat Terumah: In the making of Sacred Space, we create Sacred community

When Jacob left his home and journeyed to Haran he spent the night on the road. There he had a dream of a ladder between heaven and earth, and of God standing above him. When he woke, he said to himself:  Ma Norah HaMakom ha’zeh. Eyn zeh ki im beit Elohim, v’zeh sha’ar hashamayim.   ‘How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ Gen 28:17

Sacred space is something that we all resonate with. And in parashat Terumah we have the beginnings of the first deliberately created sacred space.

When Jacob recognised the awesomeness of the place where he had so blithely slept, he simply set up a pillar and offered a sacrifice of oil to the God he had just encountered. He moved on to Haran the next day, keeping with him the memory and the promise God had given him. He had no need to do more than mark the space for future use, but we need more – either because we have never had an encounter with the divine, or because we know that memory fades and we need a more concrete reminder of what God can be for us – we need to inhabit sacred space.

In parashat Terumah God tells Moses to build a sacred space – a mikdash, a place that is in some way kadosh – separate, distinct and special, that embodies an idea and directs us towards it.

From earliest times the commentators have pointed out that what the mikdash does NOT do is to embody God, or in any way be a place where God actually lives. The phrase that God uses “Assu li mikdash v’shachanti BETOCHAM” – let them make for me a mikdash, a sacred and separate space, and I will dwell AMONG THEM is key.Image

The mikdash is the first building to be created for the awareness of God, it will be in the midst of the camp and will be a portable building that moves with the community, but it will be in the making of it – assu – that God dwells among us. Moses is told where and how to build the mikdash.  There are chapters and chapters of detail as to how to build it, with what materials, what colours shapes and sizes, how much everything weighs and costs, where it is to be placed. But all of that is secondary – God’s presence isn’t in the building, but in the people working to create it. The presence of God is something that occurs only when people are actually doing something to bring it about.

 

 

The synagogue I grew up in, the Bradford Synagogue was the third Reform synagogue in this country and is the second oldest building (Manchester having lost its original synagogue in Park Place). The quotation at the top of the extraordinarily decorated exterior comes from a young Jacob who had just encountered God in a very ordinary place, “Ma Norah HaMakom hazeh. Eyn zeh ki im beit Elohim, v’zeh sha’ar hashamayim.   ‘How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” was one that seemed to fit the grandeur of the Moorish Architecture of this beautiful building which was built in 1880 as the Bradford Synagogue for British and Foreign Jews. It was and is an amazing building, with vaulted ceilings and a free standing domed ark with grille-work to the front standing within a huge niche which is painted a midnight blue, and golden stars shine behind it, so that as a child it was easy to imagine being in a different and exotic world. Added to that the rich scarlet of the bimah coverings and the Persian carpets covering the raised area by the ark meant that truly it was (and is) a place filled with awe.. It was an awesome place and a place where heaven and earth met because of the community which met within it, which educated its children and celebrated the festivals and fasts of Jewish time. It was a community always small enough for every single person to matter, for everyone to have to be involved if it would survive.Image

That Synagogue is proof that it isn’t really the building that creates a sense of God, however gorgeous and ornate it might be – it is the people who come to work within it, the ordinary people who in daily life might work in retail or wholesale, be dentists or doctors, teachers or journalists.  Each of them, with willing heart, brought what they had to create a community. The whole key is in that verb – assu. We have to be doing, to making, to be forming and creating the whole time, not resting on our laurels in beautiful places, not turning places into museums of sacred space. Jacob had the right idea when having acknowledged the power of the encounter with the words “Ma Norah HaMakom hazeh. Eyn zeh ki im beit Elohim, v’zeh sha’ar hashamayim.   ‘How full of awe is this place! this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.‘ –  he then he marked the place and moved on.

Sacred space is only sacred if we keep adding to its kedushah by being ourselves people who are kedoshim – people who follow the sacred principles and try to be more like God in our behaviour.